McClarey's 18-plus years in C-U winding down
CHAMPAIGN — When the Rev. Jim McClarey first arrived as the new pastor at Savoy United Methodist Church 18-1/2 years ago, he recalls setting out to make changes and a congregation that didn't know what to make of him.
"I wasn't real popular the first few years," he says.
But the church stuck with him, just one example of the grace that flows through Savoy United Methodist and its people, McClarey says.
At his church office Tuesday, McClarey said it's going to be tough leaving his friends and a place that's been home so long. But he also leaves knowing the grace in this church doesn't depend on him.
The 53-year-old minister, who first came to Savoy United Methodist Church in 1996, preached his last service at that church this past Sunday and was set to leave today for his next assignment at First United Methodist Church in Pekin, where he will begin officially on July 1.
His replacement, Rev. Marc Brown, is coming from Wesley United Methodist Church of Canton and will also begin on July 1.
A Methodist pastor is typically at one church 5-10 years, McClarey says, and he feels blessed to have been at this one this long.
His children were in the first and third grades when he and wife, Lisa, arrived, and both kids got their master's degrees this past spring.
"This is three times longer than I've ever lived in my life," he says. "To me, leaving is hard. I love these people. It's a great place to be."
But he also says the Pekin church has lost 100 members in the past year-and-a-half, and he is looking at his move there as "an adventure and a challenge."
When he first arrived at Savoy United Methodist, McClarey says he and the 35-40 people who attended services regularly were still in its old building, where the Savoy Recreation Center is now.
The church moved in 2004 to its new home at 3002 W. Old Church Road in Champaign and has since grown to a regular Sunday crowd of 240 and a place people want to be, he says.
"There is genuine joy here," McClarey says. "I think the culture here is grace and radical hospitality. That's not me. That's the people here."
The church works with such local non-profits as Empty Tomb and Habitat for Humanity, operates a food pantry, and has offered itself as space for an emergency winter shelter, McClarey says. And when the TIMES Center needed overflow shelter space for the homeless, the church leadership didn't even hesitate to step up and offer what was the church's brand new building as shelter.
Savoy United Methodist has also sent youths and adults on numerous mission trips, with its pastor going on all but the last recent one "because I had to pack," McClarey says, and is also involved in many youth and adult sports.
"We think there are many doorways to Christ," McClarey says. "There are people who won't step foot into a church, but they'll play sports."
One example of how this connection can save souls: He recalls one man who played on a church softball team and wound up giving his life to Christ — just two years before he died.
Longtime church member Colleen Hart, 72, of Champaign calls McClarey "one of the most compassionate ministers that I have ever been associated with."
"He always says, 'I have time' when you say, 'Jim do you have a minute,' " she says.
Fellow church member Ginger McKee, 43, of Savoy, remembers first coming to Savoy United Methodist on the Sunday following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and leaving that day feeling inspired that there was still good in the world.
"But Jim taught me so much more about Christian leadership, extending grace to others, to lead a prayerful life, about reading scripture and encouraging me to share my faith story with others," she says.
In 2005, McKee began building a small group ministry for the church, bringing small groups of people outside Sunday worship together for fellowship and study.
"Jim's vision and mine was to try and get people to go beyond an hour of worship on Sunday, because people grow in their faith when they're with one another and studying together," she says.
Losing this pastor is bittersweet, McKee says, because it's hard to say goodbye to a friend, but she also knows God's hand is in the decision.
"Jim's gift is all about extending grace to others," she says. "In his new community, he will build an authentic joyful community, just like he did here."
Angie Ervin, 53, of Rantoul, is a 15-year church member who says McClarey "doesn't just stand up and preach on Sunday. He lives the Gospel."
"He always is willing to help and do and go, whatever somebody needs, he's always willing," she says.
She makes the drive from Rantoul to continue coming to the church, she says, because there's a draw that will continue even after its current pastor leaves and a new one is on board.
"I think it's that the Holy Spirit is very evident there," she says. "That's a draw. When you figure that out, it's where you want to be."
1. Before he ever participated in a C-U at Home One Winter Night fundraiser, sleeping outside in a cardboard box on winter nights, Rev. Jim McClarey slept outside in a sleeping bag on a freezing night in the Savoy United Methodist parking lot to draw his church's attention to homelessness.
2. One of McClarey's favorite memories: Before the carpeting went down in the new building, the church held a "Standing on the Promises" ceremony in which members wrote their own individual prayers on the concrete floor. "Every time we come in here," he says, "we're standing on the promises of God."
3. The son, grandson, great-grandson and nephew of ministers, McClarey once wanted nothing to do with the ministry himself. He resisted his calling for a time, but eventually wound up saying yes to God one day while he was out running on a school track.
A story Rev. Jim McClarey never tires of telling: When the debt on a 25-year, $777,000 mortgage for the new church building remained at $553,000 two-and-a-half years ago, Savoy United Methodist members began paying what they could to reduce it.
The debt now stands at less than $75,000, McClarey says.